The Lions of Zion, Chapter 26
What would have happened had there been a Jewish team in the Major Leagues? In an original novel serialized on The Arty Semite, Ross Ufberg imagines the trials and triumphs of The Lions of Zion, an all-Jewish team competing in the National League in 1933. Read the first 25 chapters here.
The Final Inning
The leybstants at Fayvl’s wedding was a way of saying goodbye to a lot more than Fayvl. I thought of the people we lost — Fishy Levine murdered, Dixie hurt, Butcher dead, and now Fayvl married. All of these wounds hurt, and they hurt in different ways.
Traveling around the country and sleeping in second-class ballplayer hotels with the smell of another man’s sweat on a cheap pillow: well, it’s all good for less than bupkes if you’re not winning. Out of first place by twenty games, our playoff hopes were nonexistent.
Nosie Mosie had gotten a scoop that only confirmed what we’d all been thinking. The Lions of Zion had no certain future. Levy was hemming and hawing about whether he’d continue to support a Jewish baseball team with no home field. He wanted to build a stadium somewhere, but the Major Leagues weren’t enthusiastic about a permanent Jewish club. Who could blame them? There was no club for Italians, or Poles, or Slovaks or French Canadians. Why should the Jews get one? Plus, Levy himself wasn’t sure what next year would bring.
“I’m being undercut by that apikoyres Schwartz down the street. His store sells drek but they sell it cheaper than I do. I won’t support a team of men who can’t win the goddamn pennant!” This, of course, he told to Nosie Mosie off the record, who then proceeded to put it on the record.
So we schlepped from town to town, lifting the lumber to our shoulders and unenthusiastically striking out. Eventually we got to a point where we viewed playing as a duty. This is a precise formula for losing games. We spent our free minutes discussing what we’d do once we got back home, instead of talking strategy and opposing pitchers. Reb Shlomo began to lose himself in the Talmud. He’d stay up late studying the laws of animal sacrifice, not sacrifice bunts.
We went from Chicago to St. Louis, east to Cincinnati, continued on to Boston, then came down to Philadelphia. Finally, on the back of an 11-game losing streak, we made it to Brooklyn for the final game of the season.
“When I get back to Shenandoah, I’m going to sleep for two weeks, then spend a year fixing cars. Too much humanity around here. A man yearns for machines.” Dollar-a-Klop was waxing poetic about his return to the garage.
“I was born a mechanic and I’ll die a mechanic. Fixing things that are made to schlep the miles is nicer than having them miles schlep you. I’m no automobile. Enough of this city to city business for me. In Shenadoah, I’m the master of my domain. Amen!”
Pretty Perchik spoke about the busty women of Patterson who had surely been missing him since March. “You should see what I can do with a set of buttons,” he said, and fixed his hair with his perfumed hand. With his other hand, he unbuttoned an imaginary shirt.
Khotsh decided he’d never leave Brooklyn again.
“I need Cincinnati like a hole in the head. When my parents left Galicia they wanted to escape the provinces. Why the hell would anybody go back to them?”
I seemed like the only one who was going to miss it. Big Hup sat at the end of the table in the hotel dining room, up to his neck in a bowl of chicken soup. He grunted, and nobody knew what the hell he meant.
“Cantcha act civilized for once, you big horse,” said Khotsh, and threw a bread roll at him.
“Enough, enough of this,” Reb Shlomo shouted. “We still got one game left. Tomorrow you can pretend like this season never happened, if that’s what you want, but today we’re still baseball players. What do you say we put in one more respectable performance before we hang up our uniforms?”
Khotsh again, always scorching: “A respectable performance, coach? When was the last time we had one of those?”
Everybody was thinking the same thing: Butcher’s perfect game. We stared at our plates. Even Khotsh looked ashamed. You could have cut the silence with a butter knife. Of course, we didn’t have a butter knife, since we were eating fleyshiks.
“Reb Shlomo’s right,” I said. “We’re back home, boychiks. How about going out with a win?”
“What a mekhaye that would be,” said our manager. “One more win. For the books. For ourselves. Nu, and for Butcher.”
Big Hup raised himself out of the smoky bowl of soup. His eyebrows communicated agreement.
“It’s settled, then,” said Reb Shlomo. No talking about what it is you’re going to do when the season’s over, until the season’s over. Dammit, Big Hup, could you stop slurping?”
“Amen,” murmured a few voices, and I went upstairs to practice my swing in the bathroom mirror.
Boom-Boom Beck and Dollar-a-Klop Barney stared at each other across the diamond. The two starting pitchers looked mean that day. The Dodgers stank like a fishball and so did we. This game wouldn’t matter. We were both teams packing our bags for good. But sometimes those are the games you want the most. You got one last shot to prove it was all for something, to show the world you ain’t so bad as they might have thought you were.
Top of the first and we were swinging. Boom-Boom’s fastball was heavy. His curve was nonexistent. Before three outs, we’d scored two runs.
But the Dodgers weren’t going down without a fight. Barney struck out their leadoff hitter but their number two knocked a ball over my head at second. I got a glove on it, but with baseball and bris-milah, there’s no such thing as almost.
This got Barney mad, and when Barney is mad, he earns his nickname. Jake Flowers, the Dodgers’ number three hitter, stepped up to the plate. Flowers was a big man, skinny as a rake as dainty as a rose. Barney put some elbow grease on the first pitch and it zoomed down the middle like a Duesenberg from gehenom. Flowers backed up, knocked some dirt off his shoes with the end of his long bat, and spit in Hester Panim’s general direction. Standing at second, as I was, I could see the signs our catcher was giving, and there was no mistaking what this next one meant. Hester was flipping the upside-down bird. That meant one thing: bust the batter up.
Dollar-a-Klop’s shoulders shook as he tried to contain a laugh. Flowers stared at him, his pretty face in a scowl. Barney went into his windup, and I didn’t bother getting into position.
Flowers was on the ground, squirming and holding his side. He was moving like the Spanish tango and Barney feigned surprise. In the dugout, Reb Shlomo held his hand over his mouth to hide his laughter. Flowers took a base eventually, but the Dodgers were so scared for the next few innings that they couldn’t produce a run.
In the seventh inning the boys from Brooklyn came back when Poodles Hutchinson knocked a three-run homer over the right field wall. No klop from Barney could take that back.
After Boom-Boom Beck boom-boomed our side in the eighth, we had one last chance. Before the top of the ninth, we gathered in a huddle on the steps of the dugout. Reb Shlomo stood in the middle, puffing on a cigarette and blowing the smoke straight into my eyes.
“Listen up.” Reb Shlomo slowly turned and examined the faces of each of the men standing before him. His beard looked coal black; his eyes glowed red.
“We got one last shot. Our season’s in the trash, along with the chicken bones and the day-old papers. But that doesn’t mean this game don’t matter. We’re not playing here for glory. The glory’s gone. We’re not playing here for posterity, either. Baseball won’t save the world. Not now, not twenty years from now. But we are playing for a man we loved and lost, a man who gave his soul to this game and then couldn’t get it back. If we don’t go out now and give it our best, what the hell will we say to Butcher when we meet him in the clouds? He’s watching. Aw, hell, maybe he ain’t. I don’t know. I used to have answers to all the questions and now the only thing I know is that an inning’s got three outs. We’re down by one run. Whatever the math that is, you do it.”
And with that, he pushed me onto the grass. I was puzzled, but something like the old feeling was rising up in me.
Boom-Boom, a gentile giant, stared down from the mound. I felt like a little pisher in his father’s suit. The first pitch whizzed past my knees for a low strike. I stepped back and collected my thoughts. Butcher woulda had something to say to me, to calm my nerves. But he was gone.
I stepped back up to the plate. The second ball was at my chest. I swung, but the ball smacked into the catcher’s mitt for strike two. I said the shema and stared down Boom-Boom Beck. I’d be damned if I was going to strike out in my last major league at bat.
He wound up. I lifted the bat off my shoulders. It felt like a toothpick in my arms. The ball was coming straight toward waistline. I could hit this.
And the next thing I knew I felt a stab in my hip and I was on the ground. The bastard had beaned me. I limped to first.
Khetzke bounced up to bat with a huge smile painted across his kisser. I represented the tying run. He — the winning run. The Dodgers were started to fidget. I goosed the first baseman as I took a big lead off the bag. He nearly gave me one in the mug. Khetzke looked out at me on the field. Then he looked to the stands. He turned to the dugout and cupped his hand over his mouth.
“Besser mit a narn tsu gevinen, eyder mit a klugn tsu farlirn!” he shouted, and he was right. Better to win with a fool than to lose with a wise man.
Khetzke put his bat between his legs and rode his horse like a cowboy on an Indian chase. I don’t think there was a man in the stands who wasn’t whooping with him.
When Khetzke finally quit his shtick I knew it was over. He had the look of a hungry wolf on his face. The first pitch he got he swung at, and it sailed so deep into center field that it must have reached the Eskimos.
We blew up like new balloons as we rounded the bases. The game was ours.
In the locker room there was no celebration, nor were there any goodbyes. Who knew when we’d see each other again? Some said, “So long,” “See you soon,” or just nodded and slapped a shoulder, shook a hand, exchanged a half-smile. It was the end of something, but maybe we’d get back together one day. We were too exhausted from the long season to confront the chance that maybe we wouldn’t. I packed up my locker and tried to keep my head clear of everything.
Rachel was waiting for me when I stepped outside the stadium.
“Let’s get married,” I said, and she didn’t say no.
“Did you have enough?” she asked me, and what could I say?
As we dodged the tramcars that snaked their way through Brooklyn, I looked at Manhattan rising before us like a great Sinai. Rachel squeezed my hand.
“You will miss them,” she said, and she gazed at me searchingly.
“I love you,” I told her. “But I will miss them.”
Baseball had been a kind of exile from normal life, but it had been sweet. And in life, there’s no homecoming that doesn’t taste a little bit like glove leather.